When the Going Gets Tough, Entrepreneurs Get Going

By Dov Girnun, Founder and CEO of Merchant Capital

Last year, I wrote an article calling on South African entrepreneurs to rediscover our optimism. I talked about how we’d been letting the country’s challenges get to us, and that we were undervaluing ourselves. ‘It’s time to rediscover our positivity muscle, and reawaken that famous South African grit and optimism,’ I wrote.

Little did I know that only a few months later, South Africa’s small business sector would be facing its biggest challenge yet. The COVID-19 disaster has swept the world, and our country, like a wildfire, leaving unthinkable human and economic devastation in its wake. Many small businesses will take months to recover, if they recover at all.

And then, as the storm raged around us, it struck me: if ever there was a time to rediscover our legendary optimism, it is now.

Here in South Africa, turbulence has always been the standard climate for local entrepreneurs. Let’s not forget that we went into this pandemic already in a technical recession, downgraded to junk bond status. The pandemic just gave us the final nudge. While we don’t have the Trillion Dollar stimulus packages that we’re seeing in first world countries, what we do have is grit, optimism, resilience, and creativity in spades and we do have the ability to find opportunities in the chaos.

The best businesses are often built out of the greatest turmoil. Look at some of the companies that were founded after the global recession of 2008/9: WhatsApp, Uber, Airbnb, Pinterest. They were all built by entrepreneurs standing in the wreckage of the financial crisis and looking around for an opportunity.

That’s what entrepreneurs do. They separate their emotions from their thinking. They find solutions to problems. And if the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic has done anything, it’s created new problems. Problems that didn’t even exist six weeks ago. If ever you wanted a blank canvas to create new solutions, products and services, this is it. The businesspeople and entrepreneurs who succeed in the coming months and years will be those who solve the problems of what people are calling ‘the new normal.’

Sure, it won’t be easy. As entrepreneurs, we all know too well that starting a business is incredibly difficult. And these challenging times can create even more obstacles between you and success. But that’s what we do. We’ve always thrived on adversity.

The pandemic has levelled the playing field again. Before COVID-19 struck, the small business sector was a tough place to be. Competition was rife, margins were under pressure, and clients had lots of choices. I saw it in my own industry, which focuses on alternative lending solutions, and many industries around me. Now there’s a lot more white space emerging for audacious entrepreneurs, who are natural risk-takers, to recalibrate their businesses and cut through the clutter.

We’re in uncharted territory right now. So it’s time for us to not only rediscover our optimism, but to remember what made us entrepreneurs in the first place. To tap into that spirit that made us strike out on our own. To lean into the obstacles, and create opportunities in places others haven’t even thought of, or thought were too difficult. If anything, as others run away from the chaos, there will be more opportunity than ever to deliver real value to the world.

I’m devastated at the impact of COVID-19 on my industry, my sector, my loved ones, my colleagues, my country. But I’m hopeful too. I can’t wait to see the next generation of businesses that will be born out of this turmoil. What a time to be alive.